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Duterte Dumps the U.S.

Duterte Dumps the U.S.

President Rodrigo Duterte in September at the Philippine Air Force headquarters in Pasay, a city southeast of Manila. Source: Bullit Marquez/Associated Press

President Rodrigo Duterte in September at the Philippine Air Force headquarters in Pasay, a city southeast of Manila. Source: Bullit Marquez/Associated Press

By Presley West

Standing in Beijing at an economic forum in October 2016, Phillipines President Rodrigo Duterte made a statement regarding his country’s foreign policy that read like a high profile celebrity break-up press release. “Your honors, in this venue, I announce my separation from the United States ... both in military and economics also.” His declaration was met with applause in Beijing, but with apprehension and confusion from the U.S. and the international community.

Duterte didn’t stop there, also exclaiming “And maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines and Russia. It's the only way." While he was fairly straightforward with his words, the United States so far has made no action to sever ties, only to seek clarity. Duterte later clarified that although he is indeed aligning politically with the Chinese, he will remain an ally of the U.S in trade and has no plans to break the mutual defense alliance formed by the two countries after the Philippines gained independence from the United States.

This isn’t the first time Duterte has made controversial remarks towards America or American leaders. In response to Obama’s plans on confronting him on his globally known war on drugs, Duterte exclaimed "Who does he think he is? I am no American puppet. I am the president of a sovereign country and I am not answerable to anyone except the Filipino people…Son of a bitch, I will swear at you." Relations between the two leaders were understandably tense after that, but the relationship between the Phillipines and the United States remained unchanged. However, it seems that this won’t be the case with Duterte’s latest statement. While the US and the Phillipines will remain linked through various trade, foreign investment, and shared security interests, Duterte’s comments made it clear that the relationship between the two nations will be changed, at least in some way, going forward.

The foreign community and the Obama administration were taken aback by the announcement. "It isn't just the United States who is baffled by this rhetoric," said U.S. State Department spokesperson John Kirby. He stated that the US administration’s plan is to probe further into this matter and find out exactly what this “separation” entails. Duterte has since gone back on his statement, claiming that a complete “severance of ties” was not possible, but that he only meant a shift away from the alignment of foreign policy between the two countries.

So why the shift, or breakup, as you will? Some experts have cited Duterte’s inability to receive a US visa in the past as the reason for his vocal dislike of the US. That’s speculation, but in a leader such as Duterte, known for recklessly speaking his mind no matter the consequences, it’s a fairly reasonable assessment that he could still be holding a grudge.  Obama’s disapproval of Duterte’s “war on drugs” has been a source of tension between the two leaders and is another leading explanation for why Duterte is so eager to cut ties with the world’s greatest global power. However, it’s also quite likely that, despite their differences and conflicts in the past, Duterte simply sees China as a stronger ally in the region that the United States. Duterte wants to export more goods and have better infrastructure, and China is more than willing to help. China has stated their willingness to reopen their market for fruit from the Phillipines, and is providing the Phillipines with bargain-priced loans. Though many viewed his comments as out of the blue and unreasonable, it may simply be that growth-focused Duterte believes that the benefits of economic growth and prosperity from allying with China outweigh the costs of disassociating with the United States.

It’s unclear how exactly the United States will be affected by this change going forward but the US has more at stake than they it would probably like to admit. The US relies on access to Phillipines’ ports and naval bases to remain a strong presence in the region alongside China, which, in the last decade, has grown increasingly aggressive in its pursuit of territories in the South China Sea, including the Scarborough Shoal, which is also claimed by the Philippines. The loss of access to those facilities would drastically change the United States’ approach in the region.

While the relationship between these two nations is hypothetically being redefined, little action has been taken thus far by Duterte’s administration to actually separate ties. The United States and Philippines’ militaries are still closely tied. Aside from that, many Phillipines’ citizens are staunchly pro-American. Many of them have family in the states, and most view the American presence in the region favorably. Duterte remains highly popular at home, but this Anti-American move has increased vocal opposition from those within his country.

So what’s the point of all this? Is it a good strategy for Duterte to ally with China for the sake of economic growth? Is it a show of spite from an irrational leader aimed at the United States and President Obama’s criticism of his harsh anti-drug stance? Maybe, but maybe not. The most recent theory is that Duterte has played both the United States and China for fools, pitting them against each other similar to how relatively small countries drew concessions from the world’s two greatest superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, during the Cold War Era by threatening a shift in allegiance.

Whether the Cold War comparison and portrayal of Duterte as an international relations scheming mastermind is a stretch or not, Duterte has thus far managed to maintain the United States alliance while securing a much more favorable relationship with China as well. It is still too soon to tell how international relations will be affected going forward by this proclamation, but for now, the most likely scenario seems to be the aforementioned status quo; the Phillipines will maintain favorable relationships with both parties. While his intentions may never be completely transparent, it is clear that Duterte plans on doing things his way going forward. As the situation remains uncertain, it is quite likely that the widely covered “separation” from the United States is far from the last time Duterte will be making global headlines. 

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